Pizza day is big business in schools. Students can’t wait to bite into a hot, cheesy treat on a break between classes.
But for some schools in the Yakima area this school year, pizza has been almost impossible to obtain.
“This is one of the first things that happened last week. We did not receive any pizza from our vendor, ”said Nora Flores, Director of Food Services for the Toppenish School District.
In recent weeks, six school districts have warned of last minute menu changes on their websites. Most of these districts were in the lower valley.
Officials of local school lunch programs say they have difficulty obtaining food items, including milk, juices and processed foods like chicken patties and pizza.
Other necessary supplies like paper and foam trays, salad bowls and disposable bowls were difficult to acquire. Cassie Davidson, director of food and nutrition services for the Yakima School District, said COVID protocols mean students cannot help themselves and food must be securely packaged or contained, making these packaging materials even more vital.
The risk that children will be forced to go hungry in school is very low, Davidson said. The menu may look different than expected, and that makes things much more difficult for the food service staff.
“We are a long way from not being able to feed the children,” she said. “We will be able to provide food for children every day at school. “
When an order doesn’t arrive, food service workers call it “out of date.” Even when orders arrive, the quantity received is sometimes considerably less than that ordered by the directors of school catering services, otherwise known as “shorting”.
In some cases, meal program managers use different suppliers than they normally work with or go to local grocery stores to source specific ingredients.
Marcia Wagner is the Food Services Supervisor for the Grandview School District, a role she has held for the past seven years. Prior to that, she spent nearly two decades managing food services in long-term care facilities. She said she had never had such a hard time getting the supplies she needed before.
She said that at the start of the pandemic, the big challenge was delivering meals to students involved in distance learning. But this summer, Wagner and other school food service directors received warnings of shortages. When the school year began, so did the challenges of getting the supplies they wanted.
Normally, school catering workers order ingredients a few days or a week in advance. Now Flores and Wagner have said they need to order two weeks in advance.
“So if I go wild over something, I have another week to try to get it or find it or make another plan and change my menu,” Wagner said.
Davidson said that at Yakima, his schedule predicts how much food they’ll need weeks in advance. Now, suppliers request projections six months in advance. In such an unpredictable school year like this, Davidson said it’s hard to know what the district will need so far in advance.
“It’s kind of a game right now and it’s not a lot of fun,” she said.
Supply problems around the world
But the supply chain that delivers food to schools in particular has had to contend with many changes since the start of the pandemic, Wagner said.
When the pandemic started and schools made a major switch to distance learning, vendors had surpluses of products like pizza, Wagner explained. Now, in a school year where most students are back to in-person learning, vendors and distributors are working to get the system back on track as schools need it.
Grandview, Toppenish and Yakima school districts use US Foods as a distributor. A spokesperson for US Foods said the product shortages are the result of supply chain disruptions linked to COVID.
“Given these challenges, we have worked closely with the Toppenish and Grandview School District Offer Managers to provide alternative product suggestions and adjust orders when we know the product will not be available,” wrote US Foods spokesperson Sara Matheu. to questions on the districts of the Lower Valley.
The food supply chain involves thousands of moving parts, from producers and farmers to packers to shippers to distributors. Problems in a given area can have ripple effects up and down the supply chain.
“I could never, in a million years, have anticipated that companies the size of Coke and Pepsi couldn’t get the resources they needed,” Wagner said. “And it’s really intimidating if you think about it, because if they couldn’t get them, what does that mean to the rest of us?” “
Make it work
Despite these problems, school meal program directors still have thousands of children to feed five days a week, a responsibility they take seriously.
“Wherever we can find the product we need, we will look for it, because children and their food are very important to us food service managers and our staff,” said Flores.
The school districts of Grandview, Toppenish and Yakima are all community eligibility districts, where the area’s high poverty rate allows them to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all of their students, even outside of their senior years. pandemic.
Wagner, Flores and Davidson all said their districts have requested waivers for some of the nutritional guidelines that school meals are normally required to adhere to. The exemptions concern items such as sodium content, the use of whole grains and the fat content of milk.
Districts have collaborated in some cases. Food service managers in the region meet twice a month to discuss their situation and see where they can help each other, Davidson said.
“We’re all together in this area, the directors of this area, and we really try to help each other out as much as possible,” she said.
Flores said she and other foodservice managers are looking to see if anyone can find another vendor with pizzas in stock. She said the plan is that if one district can get its hands on pizza, it will buy a lot of it and sell what it doesn’t need to other districts.
At Grandview, Wagner’s team created various recipes, including pizzas, from scratch.
But it comes with its own challenges. Wagner said she had to buy some of the pizza supplies from local grocery stores and struggled to get powdered skim milk, a key ingredient. If she can’t find it, she makes it herself by reheating the milk in the neighborhood kitchens.
“I’m doing everything in my power to order alternatives, to order emergency backup things that I would normally never keep on hand,” Wagner said. “So that if I have to, I can do something.”